She emerged from the house a star. Resplendent, beautiful – the center of all attention in the moment she was never supposed to reach.
Prom Night, 2019. Gabby Horner-Shepherd peeked her head timidly from the white door of her home in Port Dover, Ont., a town of about 6,000 along the northern shore of Lake Erie. She was 21, a new high school graduate, a young woman anxiously approaching her date for the night. It all seemed perfectly normal, if it weren’t so obvious that this was an occasion anything but ordinary.
She strode forward across the front walkway, uneasy at first, still feeling out the small audience that awaited her, the tall, handsome, troubled hockey player there to take her hand. Gabby’s light brown hair fell down either side of her, freshly painted blue nails the perfect complement for a light gray dress set billowing in the soft evening breeze.
Twenty-one years. It was a miracle to some she was still here, an act of defiance to the medical journals and doctors who said, upon her birth early in the night of March 2, 1998, she wasn’t long for this world.
Gabby has partial trisomy 13, a chromosomal disorder that fails to give children born with it much of a chance. During one of the first medical visits with her daughter she can remember, Shannon Horner-Shepherd sat with a doctor as he explained Gabby’s diagnosis. He opened a textbook to a place with an image covering about a quarter of the page. Upon closer inspection, it was an autopsy photo. Trisomy 13, the book read, wasn’t compatible with life.
The outlook was grim. The median survival time for babies born with trisomy 13, according to one British medical study, is between seven and 10 days. “They basically said, ‘She’s probably going to die,’ ” Shannon recalled. “ ‘Take her home and love her until she does.’ ”
Shannon found herself, as she has on many days since, doing all she could to keep it together. She is a filter-free riot of a woman, a caring mother, a steelworker, tough-as-nails and kind all at once. But in that moment, on the drive home with a new baby who could not keep from crying, it took all she had to compose herself. “There was no support group, no service, nothing to say, ‘We’re going to do this, or we’re going to do that,’ ” Shannon said. “She was supposed to be a vegetable. Never to know me, her dad, or have any sense of the world around her.” (Shannon and Gabby’s father separated in 2012.)
The worry never left Shannon, or, more accurately, it took more than a decade of Gabby’s young, hard life for Shannon to come to grips that any morning could be the one that her daughter did not wake. “It’s always a constant fear,” Shannon said. “Even today.” But sometime around Gabby’s 12th birthday, Shannon swore she would no longer let concern run the life she shared with her girl. She has a line from The Shawshank Redemption for that. “You either get busy living,” she said, “or get busy dying.”
On some days, you could forgive her for wavering. That Gabby is still with us today is remarkable. It means she is unique. An outlier and survivor. Someone to be celebrated. But nobody, not even a woman as strong as Gabby, defies medical convention so easily.
It has been hard to get here, to that incredible moment on June 1 when the prom dress flowed so effortlessly from her shoulders. It was as if, even for only that windy, rainy spring night, that everything else was as it should have been.
Shannon had to fight so hard for Gabby’s care, to convince doctors that she was not her diagnosis. No matter what medical references foretold, she had a quality of life to preserve, and it was not OK that Gabby was vomiting up to 200 times a day, unable to keep food down because the muscles in her esophagus were working backward, retching whatever she tried to swallow back up instead of down toward her stomach. That’s how she lived until she was five, when a surgeon finally relented and offered Gabby an operation that would help her eat.
That’s only one story, just one glimpse into the long, tortuous road it has been. But along the way, as Gabby grew older and was passed through a never-ending stream of doctors and specialists in Hamilton, London and Toronto, Shannon noticed a funny thing happen. Not only was Gabby still here, but she was developing into something of a firecracker, with a wicked, funny, curious personality growing inside her.
Shannon so wished for something normal for her daughter, even if she had to admit to herself that a normal life would never come. But that didn’t mean they shouldn’t try, even for one night. So on May 25, Shannon turned on her camera. “Hi, my name’s Gabby,” she began on behalf of her daughter, while Gabby, who is non-verbal, smiled and waved at the lens. “I’m 21 years old, and I need a prom date.” It was a simple plea from a mother who is anything but. Gabby was graduating from Waterford District High School, and Shannon wondered, in the video posted to Facebook, if there was someone special out there to escort her girl to the big dance.
What followed is a story of compassion, of redemption, of the miracles of human connection. When a young goaltender answered the call, his own complicated past seemed to melt away – the OHL career that fizzled, the crippling anxiety brought with it, the serious drug addiction and, eventually last year, an attempt to take his own life. Instead, on Prom Night, 2019, he found a companion in Gabby who would never leave his side, long after the final dance.
He emerged from the haze with blood on his mouth. Thin, sunken – a faded star at the kind of rock bottom he was never supposed to hit.
June 24, 2018. Zack Bowman awoke alone on the bathroom floor of a Toronto Airbnb, shaking, vomiting. It wasn’t long before that he’d looked in the mirror, at 2 a.m., sickened at what he saw staring back. The once-built goaltender was a shell, cheeks caved in, the bones popping out. He was high on Molly. Cocaine, too. And he was stinking drunk, unable to grasp the unfamiliar sight before him. I don’t even know who you are, he cursed at himself. It was then he popped open his Cipralex, pressed the bottle to his lips, and downed about 60 pills of the antidepressant. There’s no point in living now…
First there was dark, though not the terminal kind he had hoped for. Without warning, Zack was awake. Four hours had passed, 240 impossible, painful minutes spent alone, his body heaving, trying to reject the poison it had been forced to ingest. His stomach showed him the kind of pain humans are capable of feeling. Every movement elicited a vomit so excruciating he had to wonder if it would be the one that did him in for good. When it didn’t, when he was able to stumble to his feet in the dawn of a new morning, he felt something else. “It was regret,” Zack said. “I didn’t want to die.”
The doctor’s basically said, ‘She’s probably going to die. Take her home and love her until she does.’
– Shannon Horner-Shepherd, Gabby’s mother
For Zack, this was the point of return, the moment when his miserable fall was finally, mercifully, over. Imagine what a transformation he had undergone. His family knew him always as a kind soul, a gentle child who had an unmistakable tenderness to augment his athletic gifts. Zack had been a top youth goalie from St. Catharines, Ont., drafted by the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers in 2013, with stops later in Flint, Sudbury and Owen Sound.
His departure for the OHL took him from home, though it didn’t at first strip him of the values he held dear. When he was in Plymouth, his billet family fostered dogs, more than a dozen furry canines running around the house at any time. Once, there was a runt in the batch, a tiny Treeing Walker Coonhound picked on by the other dogs, who would never leave the hound as much food as they would wolf down for themselves.
So Zack took him in, let him live in his bed, nourished him with scraps from the dinner table. Later, when the family took the dogs to an adoption drive to find new homes, each one of the animals was taken except the hound, who sat unclaimed at the end of the day. Zack was distraught until he returned to St. Catharines with the hound in tow, a new family dog that would gleefully announce his own arrival. “He has this screaming howl,” said Zack’s older brother, Jake. “Everyone in the neighborhood knows him.”
This was the Zack his family knew, the Zack they would watch slip away. In hockey, he was a good player, once the owner of a 2.98 GAA over his six games with the Firebirds in 2015. But when his performance faltered, he found the cruel side of junior hockey overwhelmed him. Zack began using drugs in Sudbury, first as recreation. A little weed at a party. Maybe some cocaine during a night on the town.
That all changed in Owen Sound. The more goals Zack let in for the Attack, the harder he found it to cope. Fans would excoriate him on social media, tagging him in the posts so that there was no hiding from their vitriol. Zack found himself lying in bed, doing the hard math of a struggling goaltender. If I let in two goals next game, what’s my goals-against average? If I stop 20 shots, what’s my save percentage? “I totally forgot that hockey was fun,” he said.
It would take a trip to the bottom of his humanity before he could remember again. In Owen Sound, often by himself, he began to abuse drugs in a way he never had before. Oxy. Xanax. Crystal meth. Cocaine. Marijuana. Molly. “At that point I didn’t care,” he said. “I was trying to get the depression and suicidal thoughts out of my head.”
Jake, who was off studying at the University of New Brunswick, had to watch his brother change from afar. One night, late in 2017, Zack texted him. Zack was in Flint for the third straight game that he wouldn’t be starting, and he was in a dark place. “I’m in trouble,” he wrote to his brother. Jake froze at what followed. “I called him,” Jake said. “He was saying, ‘I’ve been driving around thinking, which pole should I hit? Which one would end it?’ ” Jake remarked that this was a different brother than he had always known. The caring kid who would so happily rush to rescue a tiny, malnourished hound was nowhere to be found. “It seemed like that Zack was gone,” Jake said.
Jake leapt to call his parents, Pat and Michele, alerting them to how serious Zack’s troubles really were. After the game, on the bus ride back to Owen Sound, Zack’s phone buzzed. “I talked with your GM,” Pat told his son. “You’re coming home.” Zack was relieved. Thank god, he told himself.
And yet Zack was not yet ready to be healed. Returned to St. Catharines, addiction held him still, much of his spirit still broken by hockey. He spent the next seven months abusing drugs without his family knowing, ingesting anything he could to escape the pain he held inside. “It was like I was watching someone else live their life through my eyes,” he said. Zack barely cared to eat, even to drink water. “I was always just worried about the next time I’m using,” he said.
“ ‘How am I using next? Who am I using with?’ ”
His descent was gradual, so much so that Zack was able to hide how dangerous his life had become. “He didn’t appear what you stereotypically think a meth addict would look like,” Jake said. “That was the most shocking thing: how are you using like this right under our noses?”
By June 2018, the OHL long behind him, Zack went on one last binge. He was strung out, near death on the bathroom floor of that Toronto Airbnb, when he decided he wanted another future. On the Sunday morning after he had tried to take his own life, Zack steered his 2002 Toyota Corolla toward home. The song “Demons” by Imagine Dragons came on his stereo, and each time Zack played it again he wept harder.
When you feel my heat,
Look into my eyes.
It’s where my demons hide.
It’s where my demons hide.
Don’t get too close,
It’s dark inside.
It’s where my demons hide.
It’s where my demons hide.
In St. Catharines, Pat and Michele made certain he was in rehab every day until the son they knew began to re-emerge. It was hard, humbling, gruelling work. But Zack committed with everything he had. Each day was about routine. Make your bed in the morning. Drink a glass of water. No matter how mundane or how trivial, each step was important. He was rebuilding a clean life from its very foundation.
Zack hung a whiteboard, which Jake, home from school for the summer, would check. “He would write on it, ‘Days sober: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…’ ” Jake said. “Slowly, you could see him come around.” As the days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, Jake watched Zack, who said he hasn’t been drunk or high since that night in Toronto last year, return. “I don’t know if I would say the old Zack is back,” Jake said. “But it feels like he’s a more mature version of his prior self.”
The new Zack was getting healthy, beginning again a relationship with the sport that had both given and taken so much from him. All the while, in the hopes of doing some good in this reborn life, he was unafraid to share what he had learned. “If I can help one kid not go through the same thing I did,” he said, “I’ve done my job.”
Which led him to Prom Night, 2019. In late spring, Zack was near Ft. Lauderdale, training in private lessons with Florida Panthers’ goalie coach Robb Tallas, working to rebuild a career in hockey. It was there he saw Shannon’s video with Gabby. Because of hockey, Zack had to miss his own prom, but more than that he was struck by the strength of these women, the character they had put on video and broadcast to the world. Zack wanted to do anything he could to be part of the night.
“I have to send Shannon a message,” he said.
Shannon was amazed by it. This little video she had decided to shoot on a whim had gone viral. More than 20 suitors sent her messages and emails, offering their companionship to Gabby on the night of her big celebration.
In truth, there was only one who felt right. When Shannon opened the note from Zack, she couldn’t help but melt. “I want her to have an amazing experience that I never had the chance to get,” he wrote. “(I want to make) sure that Gabby’s physical limitations don’t stop her from having an amazing night.” Shannon read it and exclaimed: “Aww!”
Zack flew back from Florida, found a gray suit from Jake that was clean and pressed, and the very next night he was at Gabby’s door in Port Dover, waiting with corsage in hand. When Gabby walked unsteadily toward him, she was confused at first. But then she moved her eyes slowly, up and up, until they met the smiling face of the 6-foot-1 Zack. When she registered him looking back at her, Gabby lit up like a Christmas tree.
At prom, there was little mistaking the time she was having. Gabby cannot speak, though her smile is as infectious as any young woman’s could be. She danced and danced – with Zack, with Shannon, even with an OPP constable named Jeremy Renton, Gabby’s sledge-hockey coach who escorted her with his cruiser to and from prom. When Shannon stepped in and took Gabby in her arms near the end of the night, swaying slowly in an embrace no one would soon forget, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Renton sidled up to Zack to watch. “This,” Renton said, “is why we do this type of stuff.”
I’m so glad that Gabby and Shannon came into my life. Now I have a sense of purpose, of wanting to help Gabby and to help special-needs community.
– Zack Bowman
The night formed an unlikely bond that has remained long after the lights went up at Waterford High. Zack and Shannon still text regularly, and Zack checks in with Gabby often. He’s found a renewed place on this earth, through sobriety, and once more through hockey. Now 22, Zack will play net this fall for the Brock Badgers, where he’s entering the second year of his university degree.
Prom night was not about Zack or his past with drugs and depression, though his date with Gabby may have had greater meaning to him still. On Aug. 24, he hosted a sports tournament in Niagara Falls with ball hockey, beach volleyball and baseball, the proceeds of which went toward funding Gabby’s continued care. “I’m so glad that Gabby and Shannon came into my life,” he said. “Now I have a sense of purpose, of wanting to help Gabby and to help the special-needs community.”
Shannon still goes back to that night, watching her daughter in the gray dress. “It was just so normal,” she said. “So perfect.” When the evening was done, when Gabby was toast and tucked into bed, Shannon retreated to her bedroom, where she began to message Zack on Facebook.
The mother has long accepted the daughter’s future is no certain thing. A wedding day may never come. Shannon, though she has three other children, will never become a grandmother through Gabby. “This was kind of the last milestone,” she said.
But it may be the one she will hold with her in the end. Before she turned in, exhausted by a special night and just hours from Gabby waking again the next morning, Shannon wrote to Zack: “There’ll come a day when Gabby passes,” she began. “And when that time comes, this night and this memory will be the one I cherish most.”